The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

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“The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir” refers to an actual site about thirty-five miles north of Missoula, where Richard Hugo taught at the University of Montana for the last eighteen years of his life. The poem, however, is not based on an actual drowning.

The fifty-six lines of the poem are divided into seven eight-line stanzas. The first-person speaker begins with a startlingly blunt line, mostly in monosyllables, in which he asserts that his hands, which once moved across the woman’s body as the hands of a lover, have been replaced by the green algae and grasses of the lake. Instead of his ten fingers toying with her hair, ten bass “tease” it, as if they were macabre hair stylists. The poem is not a lament for his lost love, for the speaker says that he hopes to find her in the spring still tangled in the lily pads, stars reflected from her teeth.

In the second stanza, the speaker gloats in observing that while most lakes are dim a few feet down, this one is dark from the mountain range around it. He associates the woman’s death with the songs of dying Indians, and he suggests that when her hands wave in the wind, they wave to the ocean, which he associates with their lost romance. In the following stanza he expands on the seashore, where they made love and where whales “fall in love with gulls.” The “Dolly skeletons” of line 18 refer to Dolly Varden trout, whose watery death parallels the imagined death of the “lady” in the title. The music of the dying Indians now fades away as the “lover” bloats.

The fourth stanza begins with the terse understatement “All girls should be nicer.” Instead of “windy gems,” the “Indian rain” falls like arrows, and the speaker is haunted by dreams of regret and defeat; the arrows of rain sing, telling him there is no way to bring her back. In the next stanza, the speaker is reminded of a boyhood experience in which one boy was slapped and humiliated by another. The speaker in this nightmare episode recalls having tried to rescue him from the company pond. (In an interview, Hugo identified himself with both the slapped boy and the would-be rescuer who awakens to the “cold music” of failure and regret.)

In the fifth stanza, the speaker reflects on other failures: the factory that closed because “No one liked our product,” the bison that multiply so fast they must be thinned out. The “hope” that he expressed so explicitly and grimly in the first stanza is now “vague,” and he goes so far as to speculate that the woman’s bones may be “nourished by the snow.”

As the reservoir fills up with the spring run-off, the speaker imagines the woman spilling out “into weather,” and he salutes her now as a “lover,” not with the sarcasm of the third stanza, but in a literal sense. She has become a part of the lamented past. She is also a “mother,” but in a perverse way: She will join in the irrigation of crops that “dead Indians forgot to plant.” In releasing her and simultaneously associating her with unplanted crops and “dead Indians” (as opposed to the “dying Indians” of the second stanza), the speaker removes the “lady” from his obsessive anger.

The end of the poem finds the speaker “sailing west” with the arrows of rain, which now dissolve in the ocean, the site of their past romance. The “Dollys,” which he envisioned in the third stanza as skeletons, are now seen as erotically “teasing oil from whales” with their tongues.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

Although the free-verse line that Hugo employs in this poem varies from seven to twelve syllables, thirty-four of the fifty-six lines are within the range of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter, the staple of William Shakespeare and John Milton), and it might be said that Hugo flirts with that form throughout. The first line, for example, is almost “pure” iambic pentameter, as are the last two lines of the third stanza and five lines of the sixth. Allowing for substitute and inverted feet, iambic pentameter lines occur frequently in the poem. In addition to the musical effects of this recurring but unpredictable metric regularity, Hugo often uses such sound devices as the assonantal (vowel) cluster in line 9, “lilly,” “still,” and “spillway,” and the long i sounds of lines 3 and 4, “slime,” “pile,” and “ice.” As is usually the case, such sound play creates music and adds emphasis to the statement.

What is most striking, however, is the image and metaphoric structure of the poem. A number of images and metaphors from the first three stanzas reappear, often with altered meaning or impact, in the last stanza. The recurrence involves the interplay between the landlocked reservoir and the ocean; the arrows of rain, which are connected with the defeated and dying Indians; and fish (bass, Dolly Varden, and whales—their actual status as mammals notwithstanding).

Certain key words also recur throughout the poem, and they are of special interest when they reappear near the conclusion: for example, “hope,” “spillway,” “lover,” “foam,” and “teasing.” The “thundering foam” of the third stanza becomes the “dissolving foam” at the end of the poem. The ten bass that teased the woman’s hair in the first stanza are transformed into the powerfully erotic metaphor of “naked Dollys” that tease oil from whales (perhaps one thinks of sperm whales here) with their tongues.